This month, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales bring DC Comics fans "First Wave," featuring a new vision of Batman, classic pulp character Doc Savage and iconic hero The Spirit together for the brand new series. "The big picture was to create a world where a bunch of pulp characters that DC was licensing and some of DC's non-superpowered characters could exist and not seem forced," said Azzarello of the title. "I like writing characters where they can't fly to get out of trouble or run really fast, like super, super fast, to get out of trouble, or have a ring to get out of trouble or pop claws to get out of trouble. These are humans, and that's what appeals to me. They've gotta use their mitts and their wits."
According to Azzarello, the initial concept came from DC Publisher Dan DiDio, who was raring for the pulp character to get their own title. "It was Dan's idea. I gotta say, it was Dan's idea. He was after these characters for a long time," said Azzarello. "He came to me years ago about this. Maybe if my memory is correct, I suggested that Batman be part of it, but the whole shared universe thing was Dan's baby. That's what he told me to do."
The result was "First Wave," a brand new continuity where the pulp characters in DC's arsenal meet with the street-level attitude of early Batman. ("We get our own continuity! Yay!" said Azzarello. "There's no continuity other than what we're establishing. You don't need to know anything yet.") For both Azzarello and Morales, the opportunity to work with Will Eisner's "The Spirit" was incredibly exciting. "Man, I would say I was pretty well versed in 'The Spirit.' I've read so much of that stuff, if not all of them. I'm a huge fan of Will Eisner," Azzarello told CBR News. "At the same time, I didn't want to tell any of the stories that Will Eisner's already told, so I thought that if we were going to put him in the mix here, we've got to change things a little bit to put some new wrinkles in the character. Doc Savage - I had read some of those books when I was a kid. They had the banner covers, the awesome looking things. Again, you read them and you find out after a while that, wait a minute - these are the same stories that I just read. The bad guy's different, but it's the same damn story. So we had to change things around with that as well. Those pulps were written...I think there's 178 of those books of him."
"I was always a fan of Will Eisner, and his Spirit really is groundbreaking stuff. So many hero's attitudes (Bruce Wayne included) can be found in Denny Colt," interior artist Rags Morales said. "As for Doc Savage, outside of the James Bama paintings, I didn't know much at all. It sometimes is a good thing for you to have no preconceived notions and in this case, it's been a revelation to how important he is to our genre. Appropriate to name the series 'First Wave' since you can draw all kinds of parallels to our industry to these particular characters."
Morales also mentioned that the amount of research he had to do to get a handle on the characters was minimal. "One fan sent me some links to old Doc Savage radio programs, which was fun," he said. "I was relatively familiar with Denny Colt and commissioner Dolan. Some things, though, are different than what you think you know. We've made some changes, and many characters, familiar and non, are gonna be getting a facelift."
The Doc Savage character, whose redesign was minimal according to Morales ("In regard to designing, the only thing I did different was shorten Doc's exaggerated widow's peak," he said. "Outside of that, I let the characters speak to me through the writing."), is best known for his pulp fiction novel titles, which is something that really appeals to the artist. "It's always important to know where you come from. Our comics heritage comes from pulps," he said. "Too much of today is taken for granted, in that our heroes are too powerful for their own good. It's nice to see things when there was an innocence and charm...and brutal. Very, very, brutal."
For Morales, one of the biggest thrills he's getting out of doing "First Wave" is controlling his illustrations from start to finish. "Inking it is a blast. My style fits the old school vibe, and people are gonna get a sense of what I am artistically that they only catch glimpses of from working with other inkers," he says. "But nothing is more fun than playing in the sand box with Joey Cavalieri, Brian Azzarello, and Nei Ruffino. Soon we'll be adding someone to help keep this thing on track in Rick Bryant, [who will] help ink. This project started slowly due to licensing lawyers, and we need all hands to get it out. So far, it's been beautiful to see it develop."
While the project may have taken some time to get moving, it's now in full swing. Azzarello's "First Wave" world contains a good number of characters - both from the DC side and from the pulp side. In addition to Batman, there are plenty of other characters appearing in the series, including the original Black Canary, backup characters from "The Spirit" and plenty of familiar faces from Doc Savage's rogues gallery. "The Spirit's backup characters like Dolan are part of this," said Azzarello. "It takes place in Central City. The Octopus is part of it, too. Doc Savage, some of his villains from the novels will definitely be appearing. I'm not leaving that stuff totally in the dust and I think there are important aspects and elements out of that and they need to be there."
But what does Batman add to the mix of Doc Savage and The Spirit? "He doesn't get along with anybody!" Azzarello said, laughing. "Why Batman? Why not?! It's gotta be him. He's the 800 pound non-superpowered gorilla in the corner."
For Azzarello, the main challenge of "First Wave" came in the form of differentiating the impetus of his characters. "In their conception, a lot of these characters are created from the same place motivationally speaking," the writer said. "I didn't want all of these characters to have the same reasons for doing things. Doc Savage is a wealthy man who fights crime. Batman is a wealthy man who fights crime. What makes them different? That was the challenge. That's pretty much my focus. What makes this character different from that character. The Avenger is another wealthy character who fights crime. Why is he any different from the rest? I was looking for those core elements to these guys."
"Doc doesn't hide who he is. He's out there. He's happy with the fame, and he wants people to know who he is," said Azzarello of the differences between the pulp character and Batman. "He doesn't want to operate in the shadows like Batman does. He's much more a lead-by-example rather than intimidation. Batman's embraced one of his core elements: he wants to scare the sh-- out of people. That's why he puts on the costume."
So, which crime-fighting rich-guy style best suits Azzarello personally? "Oh, neither! If I was a rich guy, I definitely wouldn't be fighting crime. I'd be Uncle Scrooge and keep my money in the basement!" he said, laughing. "That's my rich guy."
Jokes aside, the creative team is excited about "First Wave" and Morales in particular mentioned how rewarding the experience actually is. "It's always rewarding to do a project for the fans of any genre," said Morales. "It makes me a fan of it as well. Every project my entire career has done that for me. Artistically you get caught up in 'what or how would I handle that story' when you read it after someone else has done it. But when I do it, I get so wrapped up in the production of it, there's only time to serve the story. Once I see it in print, it's always, 'how could I have made it better.' In the end, making decisions only leads to more fuel for future projects, and that's the beauty of comics. There's always more stories to tell in so many interesting ways."
As many fans already know, "First Wave" is already planned to expand with "The Spirit" and "Doc Savage" ongoing series in the continuity that Azzarello and Morales have helped create, which may herald a follow-up after the series proper concludes. "Hopefully, there'll be something there to come back to," said Azzarello. "'The Spirit' and the 'Doc Savage' books I think premiere next month. I've had a hand [in them] a little, but I'm not writing either of them. I'll probably be doing some backup stuff in 'The Spirit.'"
While there are plenty of reasons to get excited about Azzarello and Morales' take on these characters in a noir setting, Azzarello wanted to make one thing clear: the books are there for fans to enjoy and have fun reading. "I know it's being promoted as being grim and gritty and realistic, but it's fun, too, okay?" he said. "A lot of these characters have a sense of humor. Hell, I've got Batman with a sense of humor here, okay? I think it's fun, I think it's exciting and you're going to be seeing these characters in ways that you haven't seen before. That should be fun!"